Independence aspirations: How much has Uganda achieved?

The independence monument in Soroti Town. photo by Henry Lubega

What you need to know:

Big question. The million-dollar question that arises first and tallest every time the independence anniversary comes around remains: How far has Uganda really moved towards achieving those aspirations she held at the time of independence in 1962? Sunday Monitor’s Joseph Sssemutooke seeks the answers.

One of our first needs must be national unity. The narrow ambitions of a tribe, a sect, or a party must be subordinated to the greater needs of one complete Uganda… We require political stability. My government will seek to maintain that stability, by the strict maintenance of law and order, by retaining the confidence of the voters, and by upholding the freedom of the individual… We require to safeguard the economy. This we will do by diversifying and improving our agriculture, providing incentives to industry, and creating conditions which encourage foreign investment…We will press forward with social services within realistic bounds and not as dictated by idealism… We need an efficient civil service to operate the government…”
So go the words of prime minister Apolo Milton Obote, spelling out the aspirations of Uganda as she stormed out of the blocks onto the track of independence, now 52 years ago. It was the maiden speech of the fresh prime minister of the newly independent Uganda on October 9, 1962, at Kololo Independence Grounds, shortly after the Duke of Kent had (on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II of England) symbolically handed over the instruments of the nation to premier Obote.
History shows that even before he made the Kololo speech, Obote had already compressed the aspirations of independent Uganda in his famous slogan of ‘war against the trinity evils of poverty, ignorance and disease.’ History also indicates that actually the ‘war to eradicate poverty, ignorance and disease’ was not a unique aspiration of Uganda, rather a pan-African one shared by all newly-born as well as aspiring independent African republics at the time.
But the million-dollar question that arises first and tallest every time the independence anniversary comes around remains: how far has Uganda really moved towards achieving those aspirations she held as she became independent in 1962?

Effort to form a united nation
The archives show that on the eve of independence, one of the foremost challenges facing Uganda was whether the country would be able to remain united in the long run. The many different ethnic and tribal regions of the country each had their own issues of contention with the central government, with the biggest problem being the central and most powerful region of Buganda which had for years been expressing ambition to break off as an independent nation.
The Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) - Kabaka Yekka (KY) alliance that had Buganda accept to be part of independent Uganda simply could not be expected to hold long and it was clear Buganda’s ambitions for sovereignty were not totally gone. Yet the colonialists had constructed the republic of Uganda around Buganda, and there was no imagining what would become of the other regions if Buganda went independent.
Four years after independence, the UPC-KY alliance collapsed and Buganda’s attempts at a Universal Declaration of Independence were defeated only militarily, and by then the country was racing on a path of precarious ethnic tensions.
To Makerere University history Professor Ndebesa Mwebesa, we have bitterly failed on the aspirations to forge a united nation.
“The British created a state and we were supposed to forge a nation. But to see that today, more than 50 years later, we are still grappling with the same ethnic questions they left us –the different questions of Buganda, Bunyoro, Busoga, Ankore, Busongora! It reflects we are still merely a geographical territory and not a nation,” he says.
However, for lawyer Mathew Galiwango, “Although there is much more to do, we have fairly progressed on this front because there is now more cohesion than there has ever been. Look at how much Ugandans are intermarrying today, look at the way individual families today are made up of people from different ethnic and tribal backgrounds. Look at how people today are living in areas far from their own ethnic regions…See how people of different religions and political views live and work together. We are getting there.”

Uganda People’s Defence Forces officers march during celebrations to commemorate Uganda’s 52nd independence anniversary at Kololo Independence Grounds in Kampala on Thursday.


Road to peace and good governance
Upon the 50th independence anniversary two years ago, global news agency Associated Press thus described our journey towards peace and good governance: “The East African country has come a long way from the days when brutal dictators were in charge, but it has not had a single peaceful transfer of power since 1962 and the potential for instability remains as Opposition activists intensify their campaigns and authorities clamp down on them.”
It is a view echoed by most voices that happen to comment on Uganda’s push for peace and stability of governance over the years –every one giving Uganda credit for overcoming the turbulence of the first 25 years, then posting a disclaimer that there has been a stagnation and that the results so far stand a big chance of being undone.
The British media house BBC has written that although there is now peace in the country and the turbulent days of the 1970s and 1980s have become history, it is not peace with a certain guarantee of continuity because it is reliant exclusively on Museveni without any visible arrangement for it to thrive without him. On his part Dr Kizza Besigye, the former FDC party president, has time and again said Uganda has never outgrown military dictatorships because there is still no hope at all for a free and fair election to choose a new leader.
For FDC politician Nandala Mafabi, however, all efforts towards attaining good governance have been laid to waste by one thing –corruption, which he says is the biggest problem facing Uganda’s leadership and governance.
“The corruption in Uganda is the influence that has brought up all the problems that we are facing today,” says Mafabi. “It is because of corruption that we have a poor infrastructure, the country itself has become a police state.... to be able to deal with these errors, we need a new regime which doesn’t tolerate corruption.”
Premier Obote’s inaugural speech also spelt out an aspiration to uphold the freedom of the individual, and Amnesty International here says Uganda is far from getting near attaining the dream. Amnesty International points out on its website that Uganda is still gripped in a tight web of restrictions on freedoms of expression and association, harassment of subscribers to (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) LGBT rights, human rights violations by the police and other law enforcement agencies, intimidation of opposition leaders and activists critical of the authorities, arbitrary arrests and trumped-up charge.

War on poverty
This is one of the areas where Uganda, as regards the effort to meet her independence dreams, has been given much credit by disparate commentators, with statistics from various sources reflecting considerable progress. According to the World Bank, in the last two decades alone, the population of people living in poverty has declined from 56 per cent of the population in 1992 to less than 23 per cent last year.
Also according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP): “The past two decades have seen the Ugandan economy go through an expansive phase of sustained economic growth, with GDP growing at an average annual rate of 7.1 per cent from 1992 to 2011, the third highest growth rate recorded in sub-Saharan Africa during this period. Over the same time Uganda has recorded growth in the industrial and services sectors (with value added for these activities growing at an average of 9.9 per cent and 8.1 per cent between 1992 and 2011) and there has been strong investment and export growth (with gross fixed capital formation growing on average by 8.6 per cent per year during this period and export of goods and services growth by 17.2 per cent).”
The Economic Policy Research Centre at Makerere University (in its review of Uganda’s development journey at the Golden Jubilee point) actually points out that the achievements are impressive given that many years were lost to the 70s and 80s period of turbulence.
However, critics who are slow to laud The Pearl’s fight against poverty say credit cannot be given against a backdrop which indicates that poverty is still very deeply entrenched in the country, especially in the country’s rural areas where 85 per cent of Ugandans are to be found.
Dr Lawrence Bategeka, a private economic consultant who has worked with most State economic institutions, says, “Whereas the statistics are impressive, only a few are living outside poverty while the majority is impoverished and needs to be helped.”
Dr Bategeka points out the Expenditure Review for Uganda 2012, by the Directorate of Social Protection in the Gender ministry, found that 67 per cent of Ugandans are either poor or highly vulnerable to poverty, and that the number of Ugandans who were falling down from proper livelihood into poverty was actually increasing.
Ivan Namanya, a graduate student at Makerere University’s School of Economics, also says we cannot say we are defeating poverty when the Chronic Poverty Report published last year by the Chronic Poverty Research Centre showed that economic growth alone is not enough to eradicate poverty from the country.
“We need to address the gap between the chronically poor and the policy makers, by including poor people in policy making,” Namanya says.
For Dr Bategeka, “ We can’t say we are winning the war on poverty until we stop being dependent on the natural resource base forests, minerals, the soil– and turn to innovation and invention.”

The war on ignorance

If statistics are to be followed, this is another area where Uganda has made tremendous progress in the last 50 years. Statistics from Cambridge University’s Centre of African Studies indicate that at independence, just about 7 per cent of the 6 million people in Uganda could be termed literate –able to read and write in any language.
Then the level of primary enrolment was also quite low at just 13 per cent of children of school-going age, while less than 1 per cent of the population had completed post-secondary education. Yet today, according to UNESCO statistics, 74 per cent of the population can read and write, primary school enrolment is above 90 per cent, secondary school enrolment above 55 per cent.
However, according to Dr Bategeka, again here the statistics are simply flattering. “The education is better than nothing,” he says, “But it is still not good, the quality is very poor for it to serve the purpose that education is meant to serve in a nation. Remember human capital is any country’s greatest resource, and then you will see how terrible our situation is.”
It is the same opinion echoed by school teacher Alfred Kitimbo, who says, “It is very disheartening that from having one of the best educational standards in Africa, today we are ranking among the continent’s worst on learning outcomes such as ability in reading and mathematics.”
Scientific discoveries
For Kitimbo, there’s just no way we can say we’ve progressed when Makerere University had fallen from being one of the best universities in Africa, the pride of East and Central Africa, to having people today doubt the quality of training it offers.
Kitimbo says by now we should be having people making big scientific discoveries if in the 1960s we had local medical professionals who were world-renown for their prowess in areas like urology and cardiology.

The war on disease

“Our child and maternal mortality rates are still very high, our life expectancy is still very low and scores of Ugandans are still dying from diseases like malaria and malnutrition which have long been banished in some countries,” Prof Ndebesa Mwebesa says in what is supposed to be a quick sketch to show that to him this is another area where we are doing so badly.
The professor’s words are in line with the UNICEF country profile of Uganda which indicates that we have: one of the lowest life expectancies in the world (58.7); high and further rising infant and child mortality rates due to diseases like malaria, pneumonia, diarrhoea and malnutrition; and once-again-rising HIV infection rates which (at 7.3 per cent today) are reversing the remarkable campaign that saw the same rates fall from 18 per cent in 1992 to 6.4 per cent in 2005.
Justin Mweru, a businesswoman along Luwum Street in Kampala, says: “My late father on many occasions told me about the condition of the health sector at independence and if I compare with the picture he gave me I’m sure we have deteriorated. The old man told me there were drugs in all the hospitals, that they would go to Mulago [hospital] and be properly treated for free, and if I measure today’s situation it is terrible,” Mweru says.
In the view with Dr Ronah Bwogi, the government has made efforts to improve the health sector and win the war against disease, but she says government is doing it the wrong way.
“If you look at recent initiatives like the introduction of health centres,” Bwogi says, “You realise government has maybe tried to address the health sector conundrum. But then you realise that health workers are poorly paid compared to old times, the amount of funds dedicated to the sector are insufficient.”
Journalist Martin Kanye, who thinks this is the aspiration on which we have most failed, says: “Our main achievement in this sector since independence has been the ability to increase the number of trained medical workers in government and public administration positions, while on the other side of the same coin we rot the health sector more and more.”